Recently, I wrote about “Living with an Accidental Identity." I described how painful early experiences, definitions, and defenses affect the way individuals perceive and present themselves throughout their lives, leading them to develop an “accidental identity,” rather than a true sense of who they are. Understanding this process can lead people to question their negative identity and make big changes in the way they perceive themselves. In this post, I will discuss some powerful actions that we can all take to challenge our negative self-perceptions and change our sense of identity.
First, we have to realize that identity is the furthest thing from being fixed. A person can come to be who they want to be by changing their actions at any given moment. However, both our actions and our self-perception feel much harder to change when we’ve lived with them for so long. Breaking out of an old identity often symbolically means breaking the "fantasy bond" or illusion of connection with our family of origin where the identity was formed, a family that was once our source of safety. Many of us treat our inner critic, which supports our negative self-concept, like a welcome guest and are more willing to believe its every word than to challenge the original identity we formed in our early environment. So how can we challenge a prescribed sense of identity, peel back the layers, and find out who we really are?
1. Stand Up to Your Critical Inner Voice
One technique for shifting this distorted self-concept is using the steps in Voice Therapy. Voice Therapy is a method developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, to help people identify and act against their “critical inner voice,” a negative internal dialogue that criticizes and undermines us and others in ways that hurt and limit us in our lives. The steps of Voice Therapy help us to identify the destructive things we’re telling ourselves. Some of these are right on the surface: “You’re so stupid, fat, ugly, lazy, annoying, unsuccessful.” Some of these “voices” can be deduced from how we treat ourselves: who we choose to date, how we take care of ourselves, ways we hold ourselves back or struggle in relation to achieving our goals.
Voice Therapy can help us catch on to these voices and externalize them. We start by saying them out loud (or writing them down) as “you” statements (i.e., “You’re so stupid," etc.) We externalize them, so we can see them as a separate enemy, as opposed to our real point of view. As we get deeper into the voice attacks and experience emotion around them, we can start to make connections to where these thoughts come from. Where did we get these ideas about ourselves? The more we understand their source in the past, the more power we have over this destructive process in the present.
It’s important to challenge those voices. We can respond with a kinder, more compassionate, and realistic point of view, and we can take actions that go against their directives. Even when our voice tells us, “You can’t do that,” we can take the risk and go after what we want in life. We can make alterations from a calmer place of understanding and a belief in our ability to develop.
2. Cultivate an Inner Companion
We can strengthen our real sense of self by adopting a kind attitude toward ourselves. The more inquisitive, patient, and open we can be toward ourselves and who we are, the more we can grow and change to become who we seek to be. This process isn’t about coddling ourselves or building ourselves up, but having a friendly attitude. We should always aim to regard ourselves the way we would a good friend. We can treat ourselves as we do them, as we are willing to see their flaws and shortcomings, while believing in who they are, as well as who they can become. In the same way that we’re curious about their story and how they came to be that way, we can be curious about ourselves. And in the same way that we’re there to root for and support them when they face challenges, we can be compassionate and optimistic about ourselves as we seek to achieve our own goals.
3. Create a Family of Choice
It’s important to choose to be around people who have a positive orientation toward themselves and us. Our family of origin may be supportive and loving or critical and destructive. For most of us, it’s a little of both. As children, we didn’t have a choice to separate from negative influences, so we internalized them, forming defenses and ideas around them to try to make sense of our experiences. However, as adults, we can choose our environment. We can spend more time around people who support a side of us we like, who share meaningful goals, or simply encourage us in ours.
4. Be Adult, and Realize You Have Power
At any point in time, we can make changes that reshape our identity. Realizing our personal power is a liberating process, but certainly not one that’s free of anxiety. When we challenge our negative sense of identity, we can expect a degree of backlash and resistance. Our critical inner voice will usually get louder at first. We may feel very uncomfortable and compelled to retreat into an old shell. Ironically, we can feel like we’re losing a strange sense of belonging by seeing ourselves in a more positive light. Continuing to remind ourselves that we are no longer helpless children, but adults who can make different choices is an empowering way to shift our sense of identity. Ultimately, the new behavior will become the norm, and our inner critic will quiet down.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Meaning
To become our true selves, we have to continually ask ourselves, Who am I really? and What lights me up? We have to be willing to call into question what we assimilated from our early environment that may not reflect who we are, and what makes life meaningful to us: What pressures do I feel from my early life that shape my choices, and what really matters to me? Do I need this degree to prove to my family that I’m worthy, or am I interested in this subject? Do I want to be on my own, or am I afraid to venture out and fall in love?
Questions like these aren’t about being selfish or only focusing on our happiness. They’re about seeking our own sense of meaning. Recent studies have shown that seeking meaning, as opposed to happiness, actually leads to deeper, long-term well-being. Asking ourselves what matters to us isn’t something we should shy away from or fear. It’s when we seek the things that make us feel the most fulfilled that we have the most to offer the world around us, and it’s these pursuits that allow us to reclaim our sense of who we are.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.